Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Kingdom of God is at Hand

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).

John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, is often seen as a strange and rather mysterious figure. He announced to all who would hear that the kingdom of God was at hand. He called the people to repentance. He dressed in odd fashion, ate strange food, and lived in the desert, separating himself from the population at large and conventional, mainstream culture. To the people with whom he interacted, and certainly to most people today, John the Baptist seems to be slightly unhinged. He was not, however, ignored by the people or the religious leaders of Israel. They wanted to know exactly what he meant by his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” It is a familiar image in our culture – the man on the street corner frantically proclaiming that the end of the world is near. He is often depicted as an unshaven, dirty, crazy person, dressed in rags, carrying a sign or wearing a sandwich board, proclaiming that the kingdom of God is nigh. His is dismissed as a lunatic, and his calls for repentance are scoffed at and dismissed by the erudite and sophisticated passers-by.

When Jesus emerged from his temptation in the wilderness, he preached a message similar to that of John the Baptist’s. Jesus’ message was different from John’s, however, in one significant way. Jesus proclaimed that, “The time is fulfilled…the kingdom of God is at hand.” The thing to which John was looking forward – the coming of God’s kingdom – was indeed at hand; the time is fulfilled. Jesus announced to the world that God’s kingdom had now arrived and was being established among them. Jesus had come to fulfill all of God’s promises regarding the salvation of the world.

What is the kingdom of God? In the minds of many, the word kingdom conjures up images of castles, knights, kings and queens, and thrones. We think of sovereigns ruling over their realms, enforcing their authority with the power of arms. And, though the kings of human history may have claimed their authority by divine right, few of their kingdoms remain. All you need to do to see the truth in this is to look at a map of Europe. The Greeks, The Romans, the Franks, the various barbarian tribes, the Byzantines, the Islamic caliphate – they all ruled over much of the same real estate – and those kingdoms are all now gone. Only ruins and relics of them remain.

God’s kingdom is different from man’s idea of what a kingdom should be. The kingdom of God is not a confined geographical territory; it is wherever people are ruled by God through their faith in His Son (Engelbrecht, 2009). Scripture tells us that God certainly rules the entire universe and everything within it[1]. There are, however, three distinct aspects to the kingdom of God described by Holy Scripture – the kingdom of power[2], the kingdom of grace[3], and the kingdom of glory[4].

The kingdom of God is His ruling as king over the whole universe (kingdom of power), the church on earth (kingdom of grace), and the church and angels in heaven (kingdom of glory) (Luther, 1986).

The kingdom of God is synonymous with God’s reign. It is a divine action which occurs where Jesus is, and through his words and deeds. The phrase “God’s kingdom”, or “kingdom of God”, is equivalent to God’s authority to rule. It exists, not in a place that can be pointed out on a map, but in the hearts and minds of believers (Engelbrecht, 2009).

The phrase isn’t really used in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for king, “malkut”, however, often carries with it this abstract meaning, when used in the Old Testament (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999). When this word is used of God, it almost always refers to his authority, or his rule, as The Heavenly King[5]. Old Testament believers were made members of God’s kingdom when they, like Abraham, believed the promise God made[6]. The fulfillment of the promise is Christ.

In the New Testament, the phrase “kingdom of God” or some other variation thereof appears nearly 100 times. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul calls Satan the king of this world[7]; Jesus states, however, that his kingdom is not of this world[8]. Jesus is not referring to his realm; Jesus is saying that his rule was not derived from earthly authority but from God and that his kingship would not manifest itself like a human kingdom but in accordance with the divine purpose (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999).

The kingdom of God, however, is not abstract in nature, simply because there are not geographical boundaries. As we were taught to pray by Jesus[9], the kingdom comes. For the kingdom of God to come is for God’s rule to actively invade the kingdom of the “prince of the power of the air”, as St. Paul eloquently writes[10]. John the Baptist proclaimed and Jesus announced after his baptism and temptation, God’s sovereign rule made manifest in the Messiah.

This proclamation about the nature of the kingdom of God and that it was at hand was not missed by everyone. There were faithful Jews who, having heard God’s word from faithful teachers, and having believed it, understood that the nature of the Kingdom of God was spiritual and religious, rather than simply worldly and political. Even at Jesus’ presentation at the temple Simeon is described as waiting for the consolation of Israel[11]. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would see the Christ before he died. Prophesying by the power of the Holy Spirit, Simeon reveals the spiritual nature of God’s coming kingdom by illuminating two aspects of the work that Christ would accomplish – revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel:

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory of your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).

The manner in which access to the King of this kingdom is gained also indicates that God is not speaking of the establishment of a worldly kingdom. Jesus, as John the Baptist did, calls people to repent and to believe the good news. This is how people become members, or citizens, of the realm. Through spiritual means – repentance and faith – we have access to the benefits of citizenship in God’s kingdom.

Repent means “to have a change of heart as far as sin is concerned and in this connection points to the good news concerning the one in whom they would find forgiveness of sins. Jesus called on his listeners to turn away from the service of sin, to be sorry they had fallen away from God, and by faith to trust in him who alone offers forgiveness. Surely that is the good news mankind needs, whether in Galilee or in our own hometowns (Wicke, 1988).

God’s kingdom will be manifest physically at the end of the age, to be certain, and this will result in the transformation of the material world:

Jesus said to them [the disciples], “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses our brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first (Matthew 19:28-30).

Some churches teach that there will be a literal 1,000 year period, commonly known as the Millennium, when Jesus will set up his kingdom on earth. Along with this view, it is also taught that, at some point before the Millennium, Jesus will return secretly to resurrect or rapture all true Christians. There will then be a seven year “tribulation”, where Christians are persecuted. The battle of Armageddon will take place, culminating in Christ’s visible return to bind Satan, and the beginning of the Millennium. Following the Millennium, Satan will be released from the pit. The wicked will be resurrected for final judgment, Satan will be cast into the lake of fire, and the new heavens and the new earth will enter into eternity with Christ (Millennialism, 2011) (Engelbrecht, 2009). Scripture seems to indicate, though, that the kingdom of God has already been established when Christ came to earth and issued the official proclamation after withstanding Satan’s temptation in the wilderness:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21).

Jesus, who had been baptized by John the Baptist, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and confirmed by the voice of God the Father, proclaims that the kingdom of God is at hand, and that he is its anointed sovereign. Jesus’ baptism is a royal coronation, of sorts. At his second coming, Jesus tells us that all things will be new again; the old heaven and earth will have passed away and been replaced by the new. Creation will be restored to its perfect condition, and sin, death, and the devil will disappear forever. In this way Christ will establish a kingdom which includes the world, newly restored. Just as his mission at his first coming was to redeem mankind, his primary mission at his second coming, however, will be to judge mankind, not to set up an earthly government:

The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day…For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (John 12:48; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

All Christian denominations may not agree on an interpretation of God’s word concerning exactly how he will establish – or has established – his kingdom, or how and when Christ will return. As Christians, however, we must always discuss these issues beginning from a position of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and loving concern for those who are not yet citizens of heaven[12] with us. We must remember that what binds the body of Christ, that is, the church, is not when Christ is coming, or how, but that he is coming. And that, if one is to appear before God to give account, as every man will, he needs to acknowledge his sin, repent, and cling to Christ before that day, if he hopes to stand.

This is what we can all agree on concerning the end: Christ will return visibly and with great glory on the Last Day[13]. Christ will return to judge the world[14]. Christ will return on a specific day known only to God alone[15]. Before Christ returns, there will be increasing turmoil and distress for the church and the world[16]. The return of Christ is a source of hope and joy for the Christian[17]; we are citizens of the kingdom of God through Christ. Here, in this world corrupted by sin – Satan’s kingdom – we have no lasting city; we seek the city that is to come[18].

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Harrison, E. F., Bromiley, G. W., & Henry, C. F. (Eds.). (1999). Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Millennialism. (2011, February 27). Retrieved February 27, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennialism

Wicke, H. E. (1988). The People's Bible: Mark. Milwaukee, WI, USA: Northwestern Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Psalm 66:7; Daniel 5:21

[2] Psalm 103:19

[3] John 3:5

[4] 2 Timothy 4:18

[5] Psalm 22:28; 103:19; 145:11; Obadiah 21; Daniel 6:26

[6] Genesis 12:7; 15:4-6; Galatians 3:15-22

[7] Ephesians 2:1-3

[8] John 18:36

[9] Matthew 6:10

[10] Ephesians 2:1-3

[11] Luke 2:25

[12] Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20

[13] Matthew 24:27; Luke 21:27; Acts 1:11; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 1:7

[14] Matthew 25:31-32

[15] Matthew 24:44; Mark 13:32; Acts 17:31

[16] Matthew 24:7, 22; 1 Timothy 4:1

[17] Luke 21:28; Hebrews 9:28; Titus 2:13; Revelation 22:20

[18] Hebrews 13:14